The Sun and Helpless Things – the end of judgement

The poet judges not as a judge judges,
but as the sun falling around a helpless thing.

Walt Whitman

Here we are, finally. The winners, losers and place-getters have been chosen, and the list dispatched to the competition secretary. Now I just have to finish polishing my judge’s report, and clean the blu-tack marks off the windows. I heartily recommend the window-method to anyone else doing judging (although it probably isn’t feasible with novels … unless you have insanely huge windows and industrial-strength blutack). Being able to shift from a cerebral contemplation to a physical one is very helpful. Grouping poems together by levels (literally), and being able to (again, literally) move them up or down the order, and having them visually available for comparison. The act of pulling one out of this group and adding it to that … it’s an interactive application of visual and spatial metaphors. Plus I always find it useful to be able to prowl when I’m deliberating, and the window method actually requires it.

I shall tell you a great secret my friend. Do not wait
for the last judgement, it takes place every day.

Albert Camus

I had one last flurry of reordering as I was typing things up – two poems switched places, and one moved from HC to C all by itself. But when I made the changes, everything felt right, which was a relief. And oddly appropriate, given how physical this process has been. I’ve managed to score the top poems into my brain so thoroughly that I find myself reciting chunks of them at random intervals to the chooks. Well, Billy Collins had a dog …

For those of you who are curious, or who just can’t stop reading, a few observations about general trends in the subject matter of this year’s haiku. I’ve limited the scope to actual words mentioned rather than inferred – numbers for ‘Spring’, for example, are the number of times the word Spring appeared, not the number of haiku that were obviously set in Spring.

  • Water was the main element, with rivers (including streams and creeks) being the most common manifestation.
  • Fire was the least common element, although there was quite a bit of reference to artificial sources of light.
  • Wind was twice as common as cloud, and there was almost as much stone as sky.
  • The most common season was Summer, and Spring the least.
  • Poems were more likely to mention night (including evening and dusk) than day (including dawn, morning, noon, afternoon etc) by a ratio of 6 to 5.
  • There were half as many again references to the sun as there were to stars.
  • Cats were the most popular mammals, crows the most common birds, and butterflies the most common insects.
  • There were four times as many shadows as sparrows, and a quarter more mother than moth.
  • I saw twice as many fish as herons, but nearly twice as many blackbirds as snails.
  • Flowers were more popular than fruit and veg, and trees about the same as breezes (and gales, wind, tornadoes etc).
  • Roughly 15% of haiku mentioned some type of plant, 12% were inhabited by birds, 9% included insects, 5% were home to mammals or mentioned the moon, and a mere 2.5% involved family members.

So there you have it. If I were to sum it up with a composite haiku (ok, rubbish desk-ku), it might be might be something like:

summer evening –
in the lantern’s shadow
a flower learns to fly

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my deliberations, and that I’ve managed (in the words of one kind commenter) to be ‘just neurotic enough’(‽). I’m looking forward to finding out who wrote the poems I selected – I honestly haven’t got a clue! It’ll also be fascinating to see which poems Linzy selects for the anthology, and to go back and see why I didn’t select them, and work out what it was that I missed.

Which brings me neatly to a final thought to leave you with:

Do not condemn the judgment of another because it differs from your own.
You may both be wrong.

– Dandemis (1815-1882 )

4 Replies to “The Sun and Helpless Things – the end of judgement”

  1. Don’t you think it strange that crows are the most common bird, since we don’t have any in New Zealand? (Even though it’s an international competition, I would assume most of the entrants are New Zealanders).

    1. Actually I’m not sure that NZ entries would necessarily outnumber non NZ entries – it’s a genuinely international competition. And crows are, like blossoms and moons, a totemic image in haiku.
      For what it’s worth, ‘other birds’ (types of birds mentioned only once, and birds referred to simply as ‘bird’s) outnumbered crows by almost six to one.
      Below crows, the next most common references were ( in decreasing order) to blackbirds, ducks, pigeons, swans, sparrows, magpies, and herons.

  2. If it’s not giving too much away, do you think haiku that refer to the specific (heron, swan, magpie, etc.) tend to be more memorable/successful than those that refer to the generic (birds)?

    1. Hard to say. Being specific is usually better in any poetry, but doing so implies that there’s some significance to the specificity. If it’s just a shape or general sound, for example, then ‘bird’ is more plausible (birdsong, shadow of a bird, that sort of thing).
      The one that causes all sorts of fun is flowers – they’re definitely seasonal, but you also have the possibility to use the language of flowers to add extra emotional content. There were a couple of haiku that did that beautifully, as well as some where naming the specific flower added nothing extra. Obviously talking about a sunflower in moonlight (made-up example) has an entirely different feel to mentioning a lily in moonlight. Not that all readers will go to the bother of checking to see if flower X means something, but for those that do (or who are aware of those sorts of references anyway) it adds extra weight to the poem. And haiku is all about using references to cultural, historical, social and various other –al things to extend the frame of the poem.

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